AT&T Locks Horns with Hurricane Sandy and my data-only MiFi

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AT&T DeathstarWe were hit pretty hard by Hurricane Sandy out here in New London, CT. Lots of property was damaged, wiped out boats tossed onto shore and crashed into other property.

We also lost power, thousands of homes without power for days, as trees came crashing through wires, telephone poles were pulled to the ground by falling branches and lots of other damage knocked out power transformers and substations.

Where I live, we lost power for 7 days, and that power loss means no Internet, no micro-cell, no DSL. Darkness.

I use a Novatel 2372 MiFi device when I’m on the road to get onto the live Internet, over 3G speeds. This is the only way I could get Internet access when the power went out. Unfortunately, this device also only has 1-3 hours of battery life, depending on how much I’m pulling across it. To keep it charged, I had to plug it into the inverter in my truck, and hope that it would stay online long enough to get through my work day.

Since I don’t do “streaming” or “downloads” across this device, I never came close to hitting any data usage limitations. My data plan on this specific device (data-only SIM provisioning) was “Unlimited” from AT&T. I’ve been using this since ~2008 as an “Unlimited” data device.

5 days into my use of the MiFi as my only Internet gateway, I received an email from AT&T stating:

As a valued customer, we are sending you this email to assist you in avoiding possible service interruption and minimizing your bill. Our systems have detected that you are using a substantial amount of data.

Your May 2012 bill contained a notice that your DataConnect plan has expired and that you will be billed $10/GB for any usage that exceeds 5GB in any billing period.

If you use 5GB in a billing period, we will temporarily suspend your service. This is to give you an opportunity to contact us to discuss your options, including changing your plan to one that is $50 per month plus $10/GB for any usage that exceeds 5 GB. You also have the option to terminate service without penalty.

To avoid a possible suspension of service, please contact us now at 800-331-0500 or 611 from your wireless phone, so that we may assist you in selecting a plan which meets your needs.

I called them to inquire why I received this email, obviously an error on their part, since my plan was “Unlimited”.

The woman I spoke with on the phone claimed that these “Unlimited” plans had been phased out in 2008; 4+ years ago, and I should have received an automated email in 2010 alerting me to this fact. Since I’d never reached the 3.5GB “soft cap” before, I never received the warning email.

While on the phone, I asked her if she could make sure my plan was truly “Unlimited” and remove any blocks, email alerts or other things preventing me from using the device as originally purchased and intended.

She proceeded to tell me that AT&T no longer offers any unlimited plans, and that my only option is to “bump up” to a 5GB (5 gigabyte/month) plan. I’m already paying $59/month for the (pseudo)-Unlimited plan I thought I already had.

It turns out that when you reach the 5GB limit, email-alerted or otherwise, your service is suspended, but AT&T will continue to bill you at the full rate even though you are unable to use the service any longer. You cannot “un-suspend” your service, you can only stop using the current plan, and subscribe to a new/different plan. This is to “encourage” you to call them and subscribe to one of their other plans, the only plan available; the 5GB/month plan.

There are no 10GB plans, no 20GB plans, no Unlimited plans. You get 5GB/month, and every 1GB over that capacity, you pay $10/GB for that.

Then I asked her if I could simply terminate the “data only” SIM account, and add the “Tethering” package to one of my BlackBerry phones (I have two activated, both with truly “Unlimited” data), and avoid the need for a dedicated SIM/device for data. She said “No, we cannot do that, because Tethering isn’t permitted on Unlimited data plans.” AT&T closed this hole about a year ago, when you could use tethering, for no charge.

So I had her “fix” the problem, by subscribing to the proper 2012 “data only” 5GB/month plan, terminating my older plan, which would have locked me out, should I have reached that 5GB/month limit, intentionally or otherwise.

The operator helpfully re-provisioned my MiFi device with the correct “data” plan, and said I should see no other issues with the service or plans, other than the charge was now $10/month cheaper than my original plan from 2008.

What frustrates me, is that they never said they were cutting off the older plans, nor was there any warning or grace period before you’re shut off, and shut off for good.

Good going, AT&T. I was just trying to use the hardware I have, under the terms I’ve been paying for since 2008, so I can get my day-job work done.

The other oddity, is that my data-only MiFi device is subject to the E-911 Surcharge, even though the device can’t possibly allow me to dial 9-1-1 from it, in the case of an emergency. In fact, even if I were to pop the SIM out and put it into a phone, I still cannot dial 9-1-1. So why the charge? I asked, and received this as a response:

“The Federal Government passes this charge onto us, so we in-turn pass it directly onto you.”

Yes, that’s right, I pay monthly, for the “right” to dial 9-1-1 from a device that literally cannot dial 9-1-1 at all, ever. Neat!

Sprint and Verizon’s data plans and options are sure looking attractive these days, when weighed against the heavy hand of AT&T.

tl;dr: AT&T silently caps, then retires my “Unlimited” MiFi data plan 4 years ago, replaces it with a 5GB plan with no other alternative choices; 5GB or no GB.

AT&T officially loses over 10 years of my business

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I’ve been an AT&T customer for a very long time; over a decade of mobile phone use with their services, from my age’ing Nokia to my various Treo devices to several RIM BlackBerry phones.

I’m currently on the biggest, baddest Enterprise “Unlimited” data, “Unlimited” texting plan they offer, including International Roaming and texting as well, for when I travel overseas. I also have a second line for data only, which I use in my Novatel MiFi device, a SIM card previously plugged directly into my laptop so I could get online while on the train traveling to/from the office.

I recently picked up a BlackBerry PlayBook to use for work, and have been hacking on it a little bit. One thing that was lacking, was “always-on” Internet service. You have to use WiFi or tethering to get the tablet onto the Internet. In fact, you can’t even use the tablet at all unless it’s connected to a wireless network of some kind.

I just called AT&T to see what the additional cost would be to add “Tethering” to my existing phone features. The cordial operator told me that my current “Unlimited” plan is costing me $30.00/month, and to add the “Unlimited + Tethering” package, it would be $80.00/month (a $50.00/month increase).

I’m floored that I’d have to pay an additional $50/month for something that is no different than using my existing phone to browse the web. In other words, there’s no difference at all in the bits-and-bytes coming across the 3G connection if I browse the web via my phone’s browser, or browse the web via the PlayBook (or my laptop), through my phone’s 3G connection over bluetooth, via tethering.

The operator spoke to her supervisor and came back and told me that if I added tethering to my current “Unlimited” plan, I’d lose the unlimited capability, it would drop to 2GB/month, max, and I could never go back to an unlimited plan ever again, if I changed it now.

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More Novatel MiFi Hacking: Exceeding the 5 connection limit

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Novatel MiFi 2372After testing several different methods, I finally managed to get around the 5-client restriction on the Novatel MiFi 2372 I recently purchased from Amazon.

First, some background information:

The Novatel 2372 I purchased had “some minor issues“, and I was looking for a way to get at the firmware, or updated versions of the firmware, so I could address and hopefully fix these. I was more than happy to start rolling my own firmware, to put onto the device if necessary.

If you search the Interweb, there are hundreds of posts, blogs and webpages out there on how to tweak the MiFi device by making changes to the exported config.xml file and re-import it. Some of these work, some (even after making the changes), do not. One of them is the hard-coded limit on incoming device (client) connections on the MiFi itself… this is hard-locked at 5 connections, no matter how you modify the config.xml to support more.

You can however, update the number of DHCP addresses the DHCP server on the MiFi will give out, just not the number of incoming connections to the MiFi.

But I figured out a better way to solve this in a very clean and elegant way. Unfortunately, it involves a second router… but one with a LOT more functionality. This can probably be reproduced by a smaller router, but I used what I already had in my personal lab to create this working proof of concept.

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